Taking it easy in Tallinn

We took a bus from Riga to Tallinn. It took about 4.5 hours but it was a double decker with food and drink service which was pretty neat. (We didn’t take advantage of the service though – we stocked up on sweet and savoury pastries from our beloved Rigensis before we left so we had plenty of food. Possibly too much. But that cherry strudel was WORTH IT.)

Like Riga, we spent four days in Tallinn (13-17 September). Tallinn’s old town is bigger than Riga’s but they definitely have their own distinct personalities. One small example of this is Riga’s old town is surrounded by a man-made moat and Tallin’s a wall dotted with those famous towers with the red pointed tops. On the whole things cost a bit more in Tallinn than they do in Riga but it’s still cheaper than most western European countries. Free wifi is extremely plentiful; almost every single place we stopped for food or a drink offered free wifi. And there are some preeetty cool places to do that in Tallinn.

Olde Hansa anticipation

Our top 10 favourites things and places in Tallinn:

  1. Free walking tour. You may be sensing a pattern here. ;) We don’t always kick off our stay in a city with a walking or cycling tour but they are such a great way to get your bearings and an overview of all the main sights. I tend to find the free (tips based) ones are usually more interesting than the ones with a set fee because you get more than just a standard script: personal stories, debunked legends, reliable recommendations and usually quite a lot of laughs.
  2. Olde Hansa. So, we did a Viking restaurant in Stockholm, why not a medieval restaurant in Tallinn? It was brilliant. Again, the staff really seemed to be enjoying themselves and the food and drink were original and exceptional. We opted for the mid-range banquet, which was quite a splurge at €40 each (plus drinks) but definitely worth it. Also, we got to taste bear (in a sausage with elk and wild boar). Highly recommended as a treat! (PS make sure you check out the toilets too! ;)
  3. III Draakon. The Third Dragon is a smaller eatery run by the same people as Olde Hansa, so if you can’t afford to splurge (or even if you can) you can get a taste of the same atmosphere here for a fraction of the price: all food is €1 each and all drinks are €2. There are only two things available to eat: elk soup and fluffy pastries; both delicious. Be prepared for a bit of an act from the staff – it’s all part of the experience!
  4. African Kitchen. Another tasty eatery and reasonably priced. African food with a good range of vegetarian dishes, and the cave-like rooms are decked out with some pretty cool decor.
  5. Must Puudel. A lovely and cosy cafe with lots of rooms and retro mismatched furniture. A great spot to stop for tea or coffee.
  6. Depeche Mode Bar. A must for any fans of the band and fun for casual listeners: non stop DM music and all the drinks are named after DM songs. It’s open late every night.
  7. Tallinn Backpackers’ Lahemma Day Trip. Even though we weren’t staying at the hostel that runs this tour we were able to tag along. A very fun day trip that takes you out of Tallinn to see ancient circle graves, the biggest waterfall in Estonia, an abandoned manor house, a giant bog park and a beach on the Baltic coast. We also got to have lunch at Viitna Kõrts, an excellent roadside tavern renowned amongst Estonians.

Jägala waterfall

  1. Tallinn design shops. Skip the tourist shops where half the items were manufactured in China and support genuinely Estonian handmade items and design. You can pick up a hard copy of the black and yellow map at an info centre, view it online, or just keep an eye out for any shops marked with a black and yellow D sticker in the window.
  2. Russian Market. Next to the main train station is a sprawling market filled with second-hand goods; cheap (not in a good way) new goods; and some fruit, veg and meat. Sometimes recommended to visitors as a dose of “shock tourism”, I can’t say it was particularly shocking by my standards but if you are interested in picking up some Soviet era souvenirs, or perhaps some broken appliances or strange forest mushrooms that looked like the kind in cartoons you’re not supposed to eat, it’s well worth a browse.
  3. Raeapteek. A very old pharmacy in a corner of the Town Hall square. You can buy conventional modern medicine there as well as some (fun but somewhat gimmicky and overpriced) medieval remedies. In the second room there is a small museum of old pharmaceutical items (entry by donation).

There are plenty of other things to do in Tallinn too: visit the Kiek in de Kök tower and tunnelsclimb a tower for a panoramic view of the city, visit the art museum housed within St. Nicolas’s Church, or check out any number of other museums or churches, but we enjoyed taking a break from hardcore sightseeing while we were in Tallinn.

Tallin's old town

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Across the Baltic Sea to Riga

More than a year ago a friend recommended taking an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Riga so we arranged this part of our trip specifically to incorporate it. The reason the crossing came so highly recommended is that unlike many ferry departures, you don’t just sail away from Stockholm out in the open water: you have a whole archipelago of islands to negotiate first. These islands are of varying size; some are quite large, some are quite small, and many are covered in cabins regardless of size. The ferry weaves its way in between the islands providing not only beautiful views against the sunset but also the occasional surprise, such as a couple of brave souls swimming off the edge of one island (on what was not a particularly warm autumn’s evening).

Stockholm archipelago

I do enjoy these ferry trips (falling asleep in one country and waking up in another is pretty darn cool) but a reoccurring theme is starting to grate on my nerves. While boarding our last two overnight ferries crew members wanted to take our photo (so we could buy a copy later). Now, I could understand this if we were embarking on some kind of big long cruise – but we’re not. We’re just taking a form of transport to get from A to B. We didn’t get dressed up for it – in fact we’re probably not looking our best covered in sweat and backpacks. No one tries to take my photo when I board an airplane, train or bus, so why should a ferry be any different?!

But maybe that’s just me being boring and difficult. :P

Minor gripe aside, it was a good journey and Riga turned out to be a delight. We had four days there (9-13 Sep) and took them at a relaxed pace, alternating between a bit of sightseeing and booking future travel arrangements. We also met a couple from (the Australian) Newcastle (Alex’s home town) on a walking tour and spent a couple of evenings with them swapping travel stories over delightfully cheap beer (a welcome change after Scandinavia!).

Old town square

If you’re in a hurry you probably don’t need four whole days in Riga but however long you decide to spend there here are the 10 things we enjoyed the most:

  1. Free walking tour. It’s kind of cheating to list this as one thing as it kills quite a few birds with one stone. The tour takes you out of the old town pretty early on and shows you some of the less touristy (but still historically interesting) parts of Riga.
  2. Old town. While it’s not especially old (most of it was destroyed and rebuilt after WWII) Riga’s historical center is picturesque (if you ignore the chain restaurants), compact and enjoyable to wander.
  3. Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. A very sobering account of Latvia’s extended period of occupation: first by the Soviets, then they were “rescued” by the Nazis, then absorbed into the USSR until they finally gained their independence again in 1991.
  4. Saint Peter’s Church tower. Excellent views of the whole city and you don’t even have to climb 300 steps to earn it because there’s a lift.
  5. Rigensis bakery. A fabulous bakery in the middle of the old town. We ate here every day and still weren’t able to sample every different pastry and cake on offer.
  6. Lido. Delicious Latvian food with a kind of self service set up where you pay for each plate you take from the buffet. It’s a great way to try out lots of different things and it’s super cheap! There are several different branches but our favourite was Vērmanītis. (Avoid Alus sēta, it’s more expensive because it’s in the old town and they have less variety because it’s smaller.)
  7. Stock Pot. Cheap and honest international food perfect for lunch or a light early dinner. Get the full portion if you go for a soup but a half portion is enough if you get a rice dish.
  8. No Problem. A cool open air beer garden/bar in the centre of the old town with a huge variety of beers on tap and free live music.
  9. Albert Street (Alberta Iela). Worth a visit if you’re interested in art nouveau architecture but be prepared to dodge bus loads of tourists.
  10. Bastejkalns Park. A nice place to stroll on a sunny day. You can start at the Freedom Monument and follow the canal that surrounds the old city. If it’s a really nice day you could hire a pedalo or go for a boat ride.

Bonus points: Hobbywool is a lovely yarn and knitting shop marked by some pretty excellent knit graffiti out the front. They sell gorgeous Jawoll Magic Dégradé amongst other yarns, tempting Latvian mitten knitting kits and other lovely wooly things.

Stalin's birthday cake and the Central Market

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Travelling up through Slovenia and Italy

Slovenia came next on our itinerary after Croatia and was particularly exciting for the simple fact that we’d never been there before. It did not disappoint. We spent a few days each in the capital Ljubljana, the seaside town of Piran, and the famously beautiful Bled, ducking into Italy to see Trieste in between the last two.

Ljubljana

Everyone I knew that had been to Ljubljana said it was lovely but one or two days would be enough. It probably is if you just want to whip around the main sights, but we were enjoying our accommodation so much we could easily have spent more than the 3 nights that we did. I really do find that your accommodation plays a big part in your enjoyment of a particular place. Our accommodation in Ljubljana was our second airbnb venture and we were once again delighted. We stayed with a lovely person called Katja who has a beautiful flat walking distance from the train station and the centre of the old town and it was just nice hanging out and chatting about life. We did get around to some sightseeing as well though – nice things to do in Ljubljana are:

  • Wander around the old town, near the river. Particularly explore the cobbled backstreets which are almost pedestrian-only (i.e. watch out for bikes!).
  • Hike up to the castle (or take the funicular if you’ve run out of energy). You can get a pretty good view of the city but for the best view it will cost €6 to climb the castle’s tower. That ticket also gives you entry to a short film about the castle’s history and an exhibition about Slovenian history. If you don’t want to spend any money you can still wander around the rest of the castle complex which includes a few free art exhibitions.
  • Visit Metelkova, particularly during the day so you can take some good photos of the cool street art and sculptures.
  • Check out the Ethnographic Museum. This was recommended to us by a guy we met on the train from Zagreb to Ljubljana and it really is excellent – we spent several hours there and still didn’t see everything. (If you’re limited on time start on the top floor and skip the middle floor.)
  • Good places to eat: Julija’s is in a picturesque street and serves authentic Slovenian cuisine (some of the best goulash I’ve ever eaten – also try the zlikrofi). Svetilnik does huge, delicious pizzas – one between two is plenty.

Along the Ljubljanica River

Piran

It’s well worth the effort to visit the incredible Skocjan Caves on the way from Ljubljana to Piran!

Piran is a popular summer holiday destination for Slovenians and Italians but apart from that it’s not particularly touristy. It’s a beautiful seaside town on a finger of land that extends into the Adriatic. It’s just nice to wander the narrow, pedestrian-only streets lined with warm-coloured houses covered in wooden shutters, to stroll along the seaside promenade at dusk, or to climb the hill that leads up to the Church of Saint George at night.

We stayed at Miracolo di Mare, a B&B which was out of our normally very tight accommodation budget for this trip but there weren’t any cheaper alternatives available at the time. It turned out to be well worth it though for the friendly staff, excellent breakfast and perfect location. When we weren’t wandering around town we grabbed a spot on the concrete near the water’s edge and alternated between sunbathing and swimming in what is a contender for the best water we’ve swum in… ever. Super clear and full of fish and other interesting things to look at, plus you can swim out quite far and get some decent laps in.

If while in Piran you get tired of Italian-esque food you can get some cheap and filling Bosnian eats from Sarajevo 84.

Piran's harbour

Trieste

Normally you can get to Trieste from Piran by taking a bus to Koper and then a second bus to Trieste. But not on Sundays. Which is when we were trying to get there. We ended up with no choice but to take a taxi which we haggled down to €30 (the final price was €38 on the meter so we did pretty well). We later discovered that we could have gone by boat for only €7… ah well!

At first Trieste was a little disappointing after Piran, but it had grown on us by the end of our 2 night stay. Also, we found that a lot of the eateries are a cut above your standard Italian food. We had some excellent salads at a cafe near Piazza della Borsa (possibly the end of Via San Carlo) but unfortunately I can’t remember its name, which isn’t very helpful. Another place which I do remember the name of is Super Bar Stella, who serve generous toasted piadini and focaccie, but equally unhelpfully I can’t seem to find their address. Okay, but I can give you the website of a great place for dinner: it’s called Un Bacio Sul Canale (“a kiss on the canal”). They served us complimentary sparkling drinks (possibly Prosecco) to start as well as digestifs to finish, their menu was quite unique, and the food delicious (especially the homemade melon semifreddo ahh!).

Piazza della Borsa, Trieste

A nice thing to do in Trieste is to go for a ride on the Opicina Tramway, a unique combination of tram and funicular railway. (A similar experience to riding the #28 tram in Lisbon – but this one is even steeper!) Get off at the stop Obelisk (indicated by the big obelisk right near the stop – if you miss it you can easily get off at the less interesting Opicina terminus and walk back) for a great view of Trieste. If you have time and it’s not overbearingly hot (like it was when we were there), there are some lovely walking and cycling paths starting from Obelisk – one of them will take you to Prosecco in about an hour. If you want to ride, you can hitch your bike to the front of the tram and it will carry it up to the start of the trails with you.

There’s a long “beach” (concreate shelf next to the sea) a short bus ride from the centre of Trieste called Barcola but the water is quite rough and rocky. The same bus (#36) will also take you to Miramare Castle.

Bled

As far as Bled is concerned, this says it all!

Bled Island and Castle

It surpassed all my (actually rather high after so many recommendations from friends) expectations. It is such a beautiful place, and there is so much to do there and in the surrounding area. For a perfect summer’s day in Bled I highly recommend hiring bikes and riding up to Vintgar Gorge. Walk along the trail and back then ride back down into Bled and head for the lake. Ride around to the rowing club (Veslaški Klub Bled) and grab a spot on the grass to spend the afternoon. Whenever you need to cool off jump from the wooden decks into the clean, clear, fresh water. You could even try swimming out to Bled Island. Have a traditional Slovenian meal for dinner at Gostilna Murka then walk up to Bled Castle after 8pm when you can wander in for free and admire Bled’s twinkling evening lights.

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Visiting Škocjan Caves on the way from Ljubljana to Piran

After a random guy on the train, our host in Ljubljana and a friend from Melbourne all raved about Škocjan Caves we decided we’d have to go there. Since the caves are situated roughly between Ljubljana and Piran, and Piran was our next destination after Ljubljana, they seemed like the perfect stop over on the way.

The actual logistics of achieving this by public transport turned out to be surprisingly complicated. In case you want to replicate our journey, here is the only combination of public transport I could work out where it was possible to make all the necessary connections:

08:12 - 09:49 train from Ljubljana to Divača
10:00 - 10:07 free shuttle bus from Divača station to the caves
11:00 ~ 12:30 guided tour through the underground canyon
12:30 ~ 14:00 self-guided walk following the Reka River through two more caves
14:00 - 15:15 kill some time at the info centre
15:23 - 15:30 last free shuttle bus back to Divača station
15:30 - 17:15 kill some time at Divača
17:19 - 18:08 train from Divača to Koper
18:30 - 19:16 bus from Koper to Piran

Divača station

Some things to bear in mind

  • Buy both train tickets in Ljubljana – the ticket window at Divača was closed when we got back to the station after the caves and I didn’t notice if it was open when we first arrived.
  • A train ticket for Ljubljana to Koper “via Divača” doesn’t seem to mean you can stop off at Divača and resume your journey later, you have to buy two separate tickets.
  • You don’t need to buy the bus ticket in advance.
  • The whole journey (2 trains and 1 bus) will cost you a bit less than €15 in total.

We looked at taking a bus direct from Divača to Piran, or taking a train back to Ljubljana then a direct bus to Piran, all to avoid the 2 hour wait at Divača station but the timing just didn’t work out. If you want to investigate it yourself or see if the timetables have changed here are the links you’ll need:

Slovenian train timetables
Free shuttle bus between Divača station and Škocjan Caves
Slovenian bus timetables

Luggage lockers

Once you arrive at Divača there’s just enough time to grab one of the only 3 luggage lockers on the station platform before you hop on the shuttle bus. (Only 2 of the lockers were functioning when we were there.) It costs €3 for the day but it only accepts €1 and €0.50 coins and there isn’t anywhere to get change. The lockers are not very tall but they are deep: we were able to fit 2 large travel packs and 2 normal backpacks inside without difficultly.

Lockers at Divača Station

If you can’t get one of the lockers at the station, lockers are available at Škocjan Caves – they’re not mentioned on their website but they confirmed it by email when I asked and I saw the lockers when we were there.

At the caves

When you get the info centre buy your tickets for the 11am tour (you’ll just miss the 10am). You might as well buy a 1 + 2 combined ticket because it’s only €5 more, you get to see more more cool sights, and you’ll need to kill the extra time anyway. (You can’t get to Piran any earlier than shown above!) To pass the time before your tour starts there’s a fantastic view of the collapsed doline a few minutes walk from the info centre (follow the signs).

The info centre has lots of tables and chairs, toilets, a cafe, a souvenir shop and free wifi. The food at the cafe is not cheap but it’s not overly expensive either. The food’s pretty good but the beer is very good. ;)

The canyon tour and additional walk afterwards are AMAZING… you can’t take any photos until the very end of the canyon tour (with or without flash) but here is a little teaser…

Exiting the underground canyon

I won’t say anything else, you have to experience it for yourself!

I love Croatia

So! Right now we’re in Trieste (a spot of Italy in between Slovenian stops) but the first stop on our 5 month journey from London back home to Melbourne was wonderful Croatia. With islands, national parks, excellent swimming, friendly people, cheap and tasty food and drink, Croatia has it all. We first visited and fell in love with the country on our big 2010 trip and wanted to return before leaving this part of the world, this time in summer so we could take advantage of swimming in the amazingly clear Adriatic Sea.

The first time we visited it was late autumn, which was not as conducive to swimming but the whole country is a lot quieter (and cooler, obviously – it gets very hot in summer) as well as cheaper and less touristy because it’s off peak. I think both are great times to go though – it depends on what you want out of your visit.

Places to go and things to see

  • Zagreb. The grand but unpretentious Austro-Hungarian capital is not as popular as Croatia’s coastal cities but if you have time it’s worth visiting for a day or two. Zagreb is home to all sorts of interesting and creative museums such as The Museum of Broken Relationships and the Typhlological MuseumPivnica Mali Medo is a fantastic place to eat cheap, hearty Croatian food and they sell their own brewed beer.
  • Plitvice Lakes National Park. You could visit Plitvice (pronnounced like plit-vih-se) in any season and it would be spectacular. 16 lakes feed sequentially into each other via a series of increasingly magnificent waterfalls, each lake a different shade of green or blue. It can be done as a stopover on the way from Zagreb to Zadar (or in the other direction), or you can spend a couple of nights in the area. If you do, it’s cheaper to stay in a guesthouse in Mukinje than one of the three hotels in Plitvice itself. Mukinje is in easy walking distance from Plitvice and the walk between the two through the forest is beautiful in itself.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

  • Zadar. Zadar boasts a beautiful old town right on the sea. There are lots of islands off the coast which you can visit by ferry – I particularly recommend Preko on the island of Uglijan (a 25 min journey, less than £4 return). You can see one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world from Zadar’s seaside promenade and if you walk all the way to the end you can listen to the soothing sounds of the Sea Organ and watch the Salute to the Sun do its thing after dark. I highly recommend staying at Kolega Guesthouse in Zadar!
  • Split. Quiet in autumn, Split gets pretty busy in summer. But it’s still lovely: the old town is housed within the walls of an ancient Roman palace! Split also has islands you can visit but they’re a bit further out (it takes 2 hours to reach the biggest one, Hvar) – we found it easier to go with a tour company that took us straight to some of the best spots.

Split's seaside promenade (Riva)

  • Trogir. Only about 40 minutes by local bus from Split and yet another beautiful seaside town. It’s historic center is contained within an island dwarfed by the next landmass out to sea. You can easily wander around in a day or you may like to base yourself here rather than in Split. (Both are roughly the same distance in opposite directions from Split’s airport.)
  • Dubrovnik. Ever popular, and for good reason. Its historic old town is surrounded by a fortified wall you can walk on top of and there are yet more islands you can visit off the coast. Look for the hole in the wall which leads down to a tiny bar called Buža clinging to the outside rock – drinks cost twice as much as anywhere else in town but the view, particularly at sunset, is worth it. You can see all the sights of Dubrovnik in two days – if you wanted to prolong a leisurely stay in Croatia you might be better off doing so in Zadar or Split which are cheaper for both accommodation and food. Two options that are great for cheap eats in Dubrovnik are Bosnian restaurant Taj Mahal and seafood restaurant Lokanda Peskarija.

Dubrovnik's old city

  • There’s also the peninsula of Istria which we’ve never had the pleasure of visiting but have only heard good things. Pula sounds nice and Hum is official the smallest town in the world!

[our many Croatia photos]

While you’re in the area

  • Kotor, Montenegro. If you’re near Dubrovnik and you have time it’s well worth popping next door into Montenegro to see Kotor. It’s 3 hours by road and a stunning trip – the bay of Kotor is not dissimilar to a Norwegian fjord. (Sit on the right hand side of the bus from Dubrovnik-Kotor and the left Kotor-Dubrovnik for the best view.) Kotor’s old town is tiny and very cute. While you’re there you can climb the old crumbling city wall all the way up the part of the mountain the city nestles against. There isn’t much choice in the way of  hostels in Kotor so we stayed at the simply named Montenegro Hostel which is right in the middle of the tiny old town. Their fantastic “Big Montenegro Tour” is a must – you get to see the highlights of the country in a single day! Including views such as this one:

The Bay of Kotor

  • Bosnia & Herzegovina. We had a very memorable time in Mostar and Sarajevo which I think was largely down to where we stayed: Majdas in Mostar and Residence Rooms in Sarajevo. Half the fun we had in Mostar was hanging out and meeting people at Majdas, and if you go it is COMPULSORY to do Bata’s world famous, life changing tour. Hinden Han is a great place to eat in Mostar and Buregdzinica Bosna in Sarajevo serves the best burek… in the world. :D

Swimming in a flooded lake on Bata's famous tour

A note on transport

If you hire a car you will of course have more freedom but not having done this myself I can’t comment on cost or what the roads are like, but note that most of these old towns are pedestrian only so parking may be an issue. As far as I’m concerned, bus travel is the way to go in the Balkans. It’s cheap (£10-12 for Split-Zadar and Zadar-Zagreb, for example), efficient and well air-conditioned (a godsend in summer). You’ll pay a nominal fee to stow luggage in the storage compartment underneath – it might vary per bus company but seems to be pretty consistent at 7kn (about 70p) per bag. There are some train links as well but I’ve only used these to get out of the region (eg from Zagreb to Budapest or Ljubljana). There’s no rail connection to Dubrovnik at all so you’ll have to drive or bus it in or out of there.